It is late summer, a time in the sports calendar reserved for baseball pennant races and football training camps. But something big is happening in hockey that could impact what happens on bigger stages in the near future.
The U.S. National Junior Team — the reigning world champs — has opened the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, by going 4-0 to win Group B. That earned the Americans a quarterfinal matchup today with Czechia at 10:30 p.m. ET. The semifinals, which are reseeded, are Friday and the medal round Saturday.
Since losing to Russia 5-3 in the opener of the 2021 World Juniors (also at Rogers Place in Edmonton), the U.S. has won 10 straight, including a 2-0 win over Canada in the gold-medal game. The U.S., which hasn’t trailed in this tournament, has won five gold medals at the World Juniors, but never back-to-back.
So what has been key in the Americans’ run? It could be the quirk in the calendar since the tournament was postponed due to COVID-19 in December and rescheduled for August, a time when most U.S. players are getting ready to report to their college campuses.
“Team chemistry is really high, I think that is the biggest thing with our team,” said U.S. forward Thomas Bordeleau, who made his NHL debut this spring with the San Jose Sharks and has a goal and six assists in the four games. “Coach [Nate Leaman] has done a great job, obviously, [bringing the team together] but also just a little bit of the circumstances of this tournament. Middle of the summer. We’re all about summer vibes, but know that it’s grind time and it’s competing time.”
Everything so far has been a ray of sunshine for the U.S., but things get a lot more serious once they face the Czechs to open the knockout round. In defeating Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden, the Americans have outscored its opponents 22-4, including going 5-for-12 on the power play.
“I think that the goal in that opening round is just keep getting better and I thought we gradually got better,” Leaman said.
All phases of the U.S. team have been contributing. The Americans have scored on 11.83% of its shots (third among the 10 teams), killed off nine of 11 shorthanded situations (second) and have the best save percentage at .950. The U.S. is outshooting its opponents by an average of 46.5-20.
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Bordeleau leads the U.S. with his seven points, with teammates Matt Coronato (4-2-6), Carter Mazur (4-2-6) and Luke Hughes (1-5-6) just one back. Coronato and Mazur are tied for the second-most goals with four, behind Canada’s Mason McTavish’s seven. Bordeleau’s six helpers are tied with three others for the tournament high.
“I get spoiled,” said U.S. defenseman Wyatt Kaiser, who attends Minnesota-Duluth and has two goals and an assist. “I’m playing with some great players. They play it the right way. They’re fast, they’re skilled, playing physical, they're in the right spots.”
Kaiser is part of a defense that has limited the shots U.S. goaltenders have faced. While there did not appear to be a front-runner entering the World Juniors, Kaidan Mbereko has seized the job and will start the rest of the way, Leaman said. Mbereko, the third African-American goaltender for the U.S. in World Juniors history following Doug Bonner in 1995 and Isaiah Saville in 2020, has a .939 save percentage and allowed four goals in the three games he has played.
The Czechs won one of their Group A games and lost three times, once in overtime. They have been outscored 18-11. Jan Mysak, the Czech captain, leads the team with three goals and two assists. Only five other players have multiple points, while the U.S. has 14. The Czechs have taken 15 penalties and allowed five goals in 12 shorthanded chances.
But across the board, the U.S. says the key is its own play.
“I think you have to stay out of the penalty box, first of all,” Leaman said of what the U.S. must do to win. “Second of all, shutting down their top line. They have a very good top line. And the third thing is just making sure that we’re out to a fast start where we have our feet under us.”
Three more wins would give the Americans 13 in a row at World Juniors and unprecedented back-to-back golds. That would be quite an accomplishment for several of the players on this team who are playing their last game at this level.
“I really think we know what we’re capable of and we’re really confident in our ability to do well,” Bordeleau said. “We know that if we play like we can, good things can come to us. Now the real hockey starts and we’re just excited to get going.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.